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Robotics key to area plants, but humans still needed

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

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DIXON – At UPM Raflatac’s Dixon pallet warehouse, a large, orange robotic arm takes labels made in the plant, then approaches a coil of labels that is about to be shipped out.

It adjusts as it senses where the coil is, then places the adhesive label on the coil. Its hand then moves along the length of the label to stick it to the coil, then returns to the machine dispensing the labels.

Raflatac is one of many plants in the Sauk Valley to use robots. But the plant employs about 73 production workers who have been trained in controlled programming.

Human workers never will be replaced, General Manager Ari Salminen said, but their jobs will be made easier.

“You still need someone to oversee things and maintain them, as well,” he said.

Robotics create consistency in the products’ quality because “there’s no human intervention, so there’s no difference between the people,” Salminen said.

The automation also creates a more ergonomic workplace, where workers don’t have “hard labor,” he said.

“In the past, if people had to do that kind of thing, they’d get injuries,” he said.

The company celebrated a year without injuries on July 21, he said.

His building has been automated since it was built in 1997.

Steve McPherson teaches programmable controllers classes at Sauk Valley Community College. His classes prepare students to be operators or technicians of controlled programming in businesses, he said.

In a recent session, he took students in groups of three to a computer, where they input data to control a robotic arm’s five axes of motion. They were programming the arm as though it were going to be used in a milling operation.

The arm took small, blue blocks and placed them temporarily in a square hole. The arm then waited a few seconds, picked up the blocks again and set them on a conveyor belt.

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Students were able to program the amount of time the arm delayed while the blocks were in the hole, as it would need to do if a separate machine were doing a milling operation to the blocks.

Most recent local layoffs of plant workers have been due to plant closures, not automation, McPherson said. Most new manufacturing jobs require knowledge of automation, he said.

“Most companies ... need more people who are familiar with it,” McPherson said.

The Raynor plants in Dixon have an automatic stacker that stacks garage door panels, Controls Engineering Supervisor Warren Sherman said. Each of the plants’ lines has automation, he said.

“Every part on a garage door panel – a lot of those parts are put on by automation,” he said.

Raynor maintenance employees learn controlled programming in a 5-year apprentice program, which includes some classes at Sauk and some internal classes, Sherman said.

The plants have been using controlled programming for at least the 20 years he has been there, he said.

Raynor sometimes decides to use fewer workers on new product lines, but has not removed workers from any existing lines, Sherman said.

“I guess we can sometimes eliminate a person, but as far as existing lines I can’t give an example of where we’ve gotten rid of somebody [because of automation],” he said.

Raynor’s plants are unionized, so “most of the guys don’t move around or whatever,” Sherman said.

If the company were not to use automation, production would take twice as long, and that would lead the company to charge more for its products. That, in turn, would knock the company out of competition with other companies, he said.

“If everything was manual, you’d have a lot of people doing things, but I don’t think you could sell a door,” he said. “It’d be too expensive.”

“If you had no automation, I don’t think you’d be able to compete.”

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